Kerry Burch, professor in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, is celebrating the recent publication of ”Jefferson’s Revolutionary Theory and the Reconstruction of Educational Purpose.”
Published by Palgrave Macmillan, the book newly interprets the educational implications of Thomas Jefferson’s revolutionary thought.
In an age where American democracy is imperiled and the civic purposes of schooling eviscerated, Burch turns to Jefferson to help bring to life the values and principles that must be recovered in order for Americans to transcend the narrow purposes of education prescribed by today’s neoliberal paradigm.
He argues that critical engagement with the most radical dimensions of Jefferson’s educational philosophy can establish a rational basis upon which to re-establish the civic purposes of public education.
Burch recently answered questions from the College of Education’s Ed News.
What inspired you to write the book?
What inspired me to write the book, above all, was the conviction that if current educational trends continue, not only will American democracy be further eviscerated, but that public education will also be disfigured beyond recognition. As we witness the decades-long, slow-motion devaluation of the liberal arts and the humanities within the public school curriculum, it has become painfully obvious that such trends are gutting the ability of the schools to educate for democracy in any genuine sense of the word. As a counterpoise to these trends, I turn to Jefferson’s educational thought in order to re-establish the moral and political foundations of public education in this country. At another level, I was inspired to wade into the controversies swirling about Jefferson because of his status as a morally ambiguous founder – how to frame this notoriously elusive figure, who was at once the author of the Declaration of Independence and a lifelong slaveholder? I do not try to escape or explain away these contradictions; rather, I embrace these tensions and attempt to make education out of them.
Why and how are the theories of Thomas Jefferson relevant today, and how were you able to draw those connections?
Jefferson’s revolutionary thought is nothing if not profoundly relevant to our vexed, frightening times. In his voluminous writings, Jefferson makes clear his belief that the American Revolution would be doomed to the extent that future generations of Americans should ever fail to renew, refresh and extend the meaning of its founding ideals in novel, unprecedented circumstances. This is perhaps the defining feature of Jefferson’s revolutionary thought – that as circumstances change, as human needs change – our inherited ideas and institutions must change, too. In my book, I make the case that our curricular structures and purposes need to change so as to be in closer alignment with the processual, moral and democratic character of our revolutionary tradition.
Who should read this book – and why?
Every education major in the College of Education should read this book! Seriously though, beyond the primary undergraduate and graduate audiences, I would suggest that anyone interested in the future of American democracy and its system of public education, should engage the book. The whole thrust of Jefferson’s theory of democratic transition points to the future and to the need to treat principles like the pursuit of happiness, the equality and the alter and abolish clauses of the Declaration, not as inert things whose meanings have been neatly settled, but as vehicles for questioning and judging and acting upon our present day realities. Only when we do this, can democracy fulfill its promise as an inherently self-correcting regime.
How would our schools change if people in power followed your arguments, and what would need to take place to get there?
A neo-Jeffersonian reconstruction of educational purpose, I argue, would mean that the arts and humanities would be restored to the center of the curriculum, something that would include three new domains of inquiry, what I call civic philosophy, ecological literacy and critical media studies. It would mean that more Americans would grasp the obvious, that democratic personhood is virtually impossible to bring into being within a curriculum denuded of a strong civic/liberal arts/humanities foundation. So, why are these lovely social justice traditions being increasingly ignored and de-funded? These trends symbolize the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of neoliberalism, in which everything – and I mean everything– becomes reducible to the icy waters of economic metrics alone. In this way, Jefferson can be recruited as an antidote not only to neoliberalism but to the fascist impulses reverberating within Trumpism.
What did you learn – or find most fascinating – in writing the book?
Perhaps the most significant thing I learned was that the best way to democratize America is to honor our democratic tradition, and to do this, we must learn to criticize that tradition in the right way. For example, while it’s necessary to condemn Jefferson’s egregious failure to envision a multiracial American future, we should also recognize that he provides future generations with a powerful set of moral propositions for rejecting those ideas and institutions that no longer meet our needs, and when this occurs, we may deem them obsolete and replace these ideas and institutions with others that will meet our needs. Thus, as Danielle Allen has argued in her “Our Declaration,” this document is intended to be read in light of preset-day circumstances: It empowers acts of dissent and political inventiveness on behalf of democracy and human rights – this is the core dimension of our political tradition that I learned never to forget, particularly as a resource for critique. Since most of my undergraduate students have learned to become historical amnesiacs, my pedagogy hopes to inspire students to become willful agents in acts of contemporary historical criticism.